Biological anthropology: more than just monkey-ing around

Students work basecamp

If Night at the Museum seems to you like a great day at the office, then maybe you should become a biological anthropologist, or so advises student blogger Elmie Janse van Rensburg.

“When I first started this, I never thought there would be a possibility of being able to reconstruct our social behaviour from bones,” Dr Katharine Balolia tells me as we sit in her office.

“So you’re basically a historical psychologist?” I say, which she good-humouredly laughs off. Dr Balolia does in fact study social behaviour, but her subjects are sometimes hundreds of thousands of years old. She studies the skeletons of our extinct primate ancestors for clues about their social structures.

The best thing about her job?

“Going to various museums and actually handling these fossil specimens, especially the ones that are to the base of our genus Homo (the beginning of mankind) around two million years ago.” Dr Alison Behie also studies primates, but mainly the living kind. She has traversed the globe since finishing her 2010 PhD working in Belize, where she monitored the effects of a 2001 hurricane on local howler monkey populations.

These days she is still studying primate adaption, behaviour, and response to environmental threats. She’s also dabbled with the human-kind too, having looked at whether prenatal stress impacts reproduction and childhood development.

So what do the two have in common? They are both biological anthropologists, passionate educators, well-travelled, and kind enough to let a random person ask them lots of annoying questions.

Biology is basically the study of living things, and anthropology the study of people. So to the astute observer, the fact that biological anthropologists mainly study primates, fossils, and skeletal remains may not make a lot of sense.

“Biological anthropology is the study of human behaviour from a biological point of view, in particular an evolutionary point of view,” explains Dr Balolia.

To understand the behaviour of humans today, she says, “it’s very important to understand our evolutionary context and the conditions in which we evolved.”

Dr Behie, technically a primatologist, adds: “Biological anthropology as a discipline is trying to understand human uniqueness.”

“That means that we compare ourselves to other animals, particularly our closest living relatives, so that’s where primate behaviour fits in with biological anthropology.”

If basically living out Night at the Museum, or travelling to exotic places and observing adorable primates isn’t enough for you, good news! Biological anthropologists also work in government sectors, NGOs, as skeletal curators and even in conservation policy.

“There’s a lot of applications you can do, but it depends on the specialisation within biological anthropology,” Dr Behie notes.

So why does the world need biological anthropologists?

“Because we are the discipline that is trying to sort out how we got to be here,” says Dr Behie.

“How did we evolve to have the features and behaviours we have? How does that link to our closest living relatives, and then—from a conservation perspective—how do we manage that relationship?”

Given the current population decline in non-human primates, she explains, the question of how to manage human needs and wellbeing with those of non-primates has never been more urgent.

Whether you want to be a biological anthropologist, an astronaut, or have absolutely no idea what you want to do—Dr Balolia and Dr Behie had the following advice to give:

“Try to choose something you can see yourself doing in the longer term. Choose a range of different options, and talk to as many people in your chosen professions as possible.”–Dr Balolia

“Follow your passion, do what you love. There will be a job there if you love it enough. And explore! It’s a big world out there, there’s so many things you can study… If you don’t explore other parts of the University and other parts of the world you can miss out on something.” —Dr Behie